By Tally Helfont*
(FPRI) — Monday, June 5 marked the official re-ignition of the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift, centered once again on Qatari transgressions against the security of its neighbors. In fact, this time, unlike the spat from three years ago, the rift goes beyond GCC members Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, to include Egypt, Yemen, and even reportedly the Maldives—all of which announced they were cutting diplomatic ties and preventing travel (by land, air, and sea in varying degrees) to Qatar.
On what basis? Is it as some say that Saudi Arabia was emboldened by President’s Trump’s visit? Is it because of last week’s drama in which Qatar’s state-run news agency published comments by Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani praising Iran, criticizing Saudi Arabia, referencing good relations with Israel, and criticizing the Trump administration—a story that was quickly removed, refuted, and blamed on hacking? Or is it simply that Qatar violated its Saudi-imposed probationary period by once again providing material support to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Houthis, and through indirect channels, to al-Qaeda and ISIS; and by using its media empire to defame and agitate against its neighbors. The answer is likely some combination of all of the above.
Qatar was engaged in all of these same activities in the wake of the Arab Uprisings and it was only through strong Saudi coercion, and not a little bit of American coaxing, that Qatar receded from the public stage and tamped down on its “subversive behavior.” Regional observers are unsurprised by this recent turn of events. It is no secret that Qatari loyalties have long lied with the Islamists of the region and that the Al-Thanis have long bridled under the Saudi yoke, but engaging in and funding activities that blatantly destabilize the region in an era when competition with the Iranians is at an all-time high seems to have been inviting disaster on Doha’s head.
Just from a practical standpoint, closing Qatar off in varying degrees by land, air, and sea will have ripple effects that will be felt in every corner of this small Gulf sheikhdom. For example, 40 percent of Qatar’s food supply arrives in the country via land transport from Saudi Arabia. There have already been reports of runs on supermarkets and ATMs. Qatar’s stock market index sank 7.5 percent thus far, and the cancellation of flights just from within the Gulf will have serious financial implications. And of course, there is also the related financial fall-out from interrupting the 2022 World Cup preparation timeline.
The Americans are not likely to be as involved in rapprochement efforts this time around. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the development saying, “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and we – if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified.” However, crafted diplomatic statements aside, observers of the region don’t see the Trump administration doing much beyond encouraging the Saudis to get their regional ducks in a row, so to speak. In fact, just hours ago, President Trump patted the Saudis on the back for their tough stance against Qatar writing:
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
With comments like this one from the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, one wonders if American basing arrangements in Qatar are going to be rethought in the near future.
For its part, Qatar is blaming this current rift on a terrible misunderstanding stemming from the news agency “hack.” Accordingly, the Qatari foreign ministry said in its statement yesterday, “The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications.” This attempt to underplay and divert attention away from this negative press is par for the course, and anyone who is expecting a public mea culpa may be waiting for a long time.
Three years ago when Qatar fell out with its Gulf neighbors, the most extreme public diplomatic stick was the recalling of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors. This time around, the situation is much more serious and will be much more difficult to resolve. In some sense, the Saudis and others are likely to abide by the “Fool me once, shame on you…” proverb. What’s more, the consequences of the ongoing proxy war with Iran and the chaos wrought by ISIS are known factors this time around. Leniency will no longer prevail—especially with Mohammad bin Salman holding the Saudi reins and Donald Trump in the White House. Qatar may be one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s not likely to buy its way out of this pickle.
About the author:
*Tally Helfont is the Director of FPRI’s Program on the Middle East. Her research focuses on regional balance of power, the Levant and the GCC, and U.S. policy therein. She is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Middle East Desk, a crowd-sourcing consultancy. Ms. Helfont has instructed training courses in Civil Information Management to U.S. Military Civil Affairs Units and Human Terrain Teams assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan.
This article was published by FPRI